Gordon Chavis can spin slowly in his chair and watch a montage of his life at UCF scroll past his eyes. Within reach of his fingers is a UCF baseball, and on the walls are a UCF pennant and a few framed photos and awards. You might think of them as the “conventional” types of keepsakes. But there’s nothing conventional about the journey Chavis has traveled.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he says.
Raised in Baltimore and educated in the Ivy League. Told in high school to settle rather than climb. Hired as associate vice president for enrollment services at a university he barely knew existed in 1999 and retiring from it 23 years later as the largest public university by student enrollment in the U.S. Chavis turns and proudly points out a football with a UCF logo on it.
“Who would have thought?” Chavis says. Then he answers his own question. “Everyone needs someone in their life to believe in them. When that happens, it can inspire amazing results.”
Former UCF President John C. Hitt and Vice President Tom Huddleston believed in Chavis when they hired him to manage the university’s enrollment, which in the late 1990s totaled 32,000 students. And Chavis believed in Hitt when he described his vision for a university that everyone in all 50 states would recognize, with a nationally ranked football program, a stadium on campus, a medical school, and twice as many students excelling in everything from hospitality to engineering to nursing.
But the believer who showed Chavis he could pursue anything he set his mind to was the person whose mere presence made him feel that he could accomplish anything: “My mom.” Chavis starts a lot of thoughts with those two words. If it hadn’t been for the belief she had in her son at a most crucial time in high school, there’s no telling where the squiggly path of life would have taken him.
Chavis grew up as the oldest of four children in a close-knit family. His parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend college, but there was never any question that Gordon and his siblings would. Their futures became a nightly topic at the dinner table.
“Being a first-generation college student wasn’t really a ‘thing’ back then,” Chavis says. “We talked about going to college as if it were a foregone conclusion. I thought I might even go to medical school at some point.”
In the fall of his senior year, Chavis went to meet his high-school counselor so they could discuss his plans after graduation. Chavis had done his research. He sat in the counselor’s office and said he planned to attend either Penn or Maryland. Then he awaited advice for his next steps.
“I remember the counselor looked up at me and flat-out said, ‘You won’t get into those schools. Be realistic. Look at local colleges.’ And that was it,” he says.
Chavis left school that day with disappointment and embarrassment replacing the space that hours earlier had been occupied with confidence and self-worth. He avoided everyone except one person.
“My mom,” Chavis says, “told me there will always be people in life who will not be supportive of your goals. You need to move beyond those people and pursue what you want to do.”
Chavis had an example in his own home. His dad, Gordon Chavis Sr., was one of the first five Black men to play on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour. There were far more doubters than believers in the early 1960s, but Gordon Sr. paid more attention to the latter — most of whom were also Black golfers who had chosen a path known to be full of resistance.
“Everyone needs a motivator to help imagine what the future could hold,” Chavis says. “I can point back to my experiences with the counselor and my mom as the reasons I got into enrollment management. I didn’t want anyone else to go through that.”
With the lift from his parents, Chavis received acceptance letters from Penn and Maryland. He chose Penn. After graduating from there, he earned his J.D. from Georgetown. At both schools he worked in the admissions departments, learning about data and details, but mostly providing a source of encouragement as he traveled the country to meet high school counselors, students and their families.
Then, in 1999 he heard from a colleague that a position had opened at UCF. Chavis wasn’t exactly sure where UCF was located on the map.
“I had no idea what the institution was all about,” he says. “So, I did some research and it looked as if they had some interesting strategies for growth.”
He met with Hitt and Huddleston and liked what he heard about building a brand, earning a reputation for excellence, creating partnerships, and opening pathways into communities where high school students might simply need a glimpse of what could be possible.
“I often say we had to be a scrappy institution. We aren’t tied to traditional ways of doing things, so we’ve had the freedom to try new ideas and set high goals. Back in 1999 UCF was number four or five in the state pecking order for kids looking at colleges. We set out to be the number-one destination. I’m sure the people on our team were the only ones who believed it could happen.”
For a gauge, the enrollment staff used the colleges chosen by high schoolers on their SAT and ACT tests. By 2007-08, UCF had already risen to number-one among Florida colleges and universities. Fall 2021 marked the one of the most accomplished incoming freshman classes in the university’s history with a class average GPA of 4.22 and SAT and ACT scores of 1323 and 28.6 respectively. Students of color made up 46% of Fall 2021 first-year students.
“I had no idea we’d get there so quickly,” Chavis says. “And we’re still there, 14 years later.”
The sheer numbers tell us that enrollment has more than doubled to more than 70,000 in Chavis’ 23 years at UCF. But more important is a culture among a student development and enrollment staff that’s now 690 strong to never lose sight of this: every prospective student needs to feel important.
“We have an 80-20 rule,” Chavis says. “When a question comes up from a family that’s considering UCF, 80%of our response should be direct information. But the other 20% is knowing what the family is really trying to ask. If they ask about the student-faculty ratio, we provide the facts. But what they’re really asking is, ‘What will my child’s experience be like with the professors?’ We need to provide the personal encouragement they need.”
He’s never forgotten what it meant for 18-year-old Gordon Chavis.
In addition to mom’s words of support, Chavis laughs when he remembers another piece of advice she gave: “Don’t overstay your welcome.”
Chavis has not overstayed, but he wants to do some traveling. In June, he’ll pack up the pennant, the baseball, and the football from the school he knew so little about 23 years ago, and he’ll find special places for them at home. Wherever he goes, he’ll hear reminders of the amazing ride.
“Last year I was playing golf in a remote area of New Hampshire. A caddie saw on my bag that I’m from Florida. Out of nowhere, he says, ‘I’d like to go to UCF someday.’ Stories like that give me so much joy. They make me proud of how far we’ve come just by believing in each other.”